Category Archives: Mysteries & Thrillers

The trouble with thrillers


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A review of Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs

@@@ (3 out of 5)

When you wander through your local bookstore, or a drugstore or Wal-Mart, you’ll probably pass by a rack of paperback books with lurid covers that are usually labeled as thrillers. Pick up one of these books, and what are you likely to find? A superhero cop, spy, or private investigator — one who combines the strength of an Olympic gold medalist with an IQ of 165 and the ability to outfight the biggest, baddest bad guy ever to come down the pike. Apparently, a former British naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming started this unfortunate tradition half a century ago. Now, it seems, we can’t shake it.

Here, then, comes young Roger Hobbs with a new twist on the thriller. Hobbs’ protagonist — his hero, it would seem — is not a superhero cop, spy, or private investigator. He is, in fact, an unrepentant, lifelong armed robber and murderer who combines the strength of an Olympic gold medalist with an IQ of 165 and the ability to outfight the biggest, baddest bad guy ever to come down the pike. Oh, but this guy never murders anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary! And, in the course of Roger Hobbs’ debut novel, Ghostman, he only kills maybe six or eight guys. (He doesn’t like to murder women, we’re told. Unless it’s absolutely necessary.)

The title character is the guy on a team of bankrobbers who makes things disappear, including himself. He seamlessly shifts from one disguise to another, adopting a wide variety of names but never revealing his own. By applying makeup, coloring his hair, changing his voice and his gait, he manages to put on 20 years in an hour — and we’re expected to believe that he remains undetected even by someone sitting within two feet of him. The few people who really know him call him Ghostman. He’s rootless as well as ruthless, and he could turn up anywhere in the world there’s a huge bank job waiting.

Blood, guts, and impossibilities aside, there are a couple of things about Hobbs’ writing that are laudable. His prose flows smoothly, uninterrupted by lyrical turns of phrase to hint that he’s really a “serious” writer. And he’s clearly done a masterful job of research into the procedural niceties and the argot of bank robbery as well as the workings of Atlantic City casinos and other topics closely related to his story. And, by the way, when I say Hobbs is young, I mean young: having graduated in 2011 from Reed College, he appears to be in his early twenties.

What’s missing from Ghostman and other novels of the same ilk is soul. Though Hobbs appends an “autobiography” of his killer-hero to illustrate his motivation for doing what he does, there’s not so much as a shred of evidence that the man — or, for that matter, Roger Hobbs — ever considers the needs, the feelings, or the value of other people. As I said, no soul.

Why do these nihilistic books get written so often, let alone published? And why do we read them? (Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) Is there some bloodthirsty streak in our national character that impels us to make heroes out of people who seem to kill for a living?

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A powerful tale of life in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism

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A review of Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Some years ago I chanced upon one of Olen Steinhauer’s excellent contemporary spy stories, sped through it and read another, and finally, in searching for more of his work, found his five-novel cycle set in a fictional Central European country nestled among Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria. (Geographically, the country has to be Slovakia, which only recently gained its independence, but some readers think it more closely resembles Hungary.) Steinhauer’s cycle spanned the years from 1948, when the Soviet Empire consolidated its hold on the nations directly to its West, until 1990, when the USSR and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. 

Victory Square is the fifth and final novel in Steinhauer’s Eastern European cycle, and in some ways it’s the best. Steinhauer, an American who has lived for extended periods in several countries in the region, spent months, perhaps years, meticulously researching the fall of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. That history forms the basis of the events that unfold in the novel in 1989-90. Against this background, Steinhauer introduces us to an aging homicide cop, Emil Brod, now Chief of the Militia, whom we met as a young rookie when he joined the Militia’s Homicide Squad in the country’s capital in 1948. Brod was the protagonist of the first novel in the cycle, The Bridge of Sighs, and has popped up throughout. Now just days from retirement, Brod is forced to contend with an unraveling government, a series of shocking murders, a best friend engaged at the very center of the revolutionary movement, and an adoring wife even older than he who wants him to leave the capital early, before the inevitable explosion.

The full cycle includes the following (with titles linked to my reviews):

  • The Bridge of Sighs (2003), featuring Emil Brod in 1948
  • The Confession (2004), centering on Brod’s colleague, Ferenc Kolyeszar, taking place in 1956
  • 36 Yalta Boulevard (2005), featuring Brano Sev, the secret policeman who works in the Homicide Department and spies on the squad, set in 1966–1967
  • Liberation Movements (2006), featuring Brano Sev and Brod’s young colleagues, Katja Drdova and Gavra Noukas, taking place in 1968 and 1975
  • Victory Square (2007)

Together, these five novels constitute a superb introduction to life in Central Europe during the half-century of Soviet domination. Nonfiction couldn’t possibly match the depth of feeling that emerges from these works.

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A journey into the dark side in present-day Scotland


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A review of Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Maverick detective John Rebus, recently retired, is trying to get back on the police force in Edinburgh, but not everyone is happy about that — especially a detective named Malcolm Fox, who heads up the equivalent of the department’s Internal Affairs office.

“‘The file on you,’ Fox said eventually, ‘goes back to the 1970s. In fact, to call it a file is doing it an injustice; it takes up one whole shelf.’

“‘I’ve been called into the headmaster’s office a few times,’ Rebus conceded.”

So it goes in the topsy-turvy life of Ian Rankin’s thoroughly unconventional detective. Rebus is brilliant, though he operates astride the fine line between what’s legal and what’s not, and slips over it from time to time for the sake of getting results. Not only does he close nearly all his cases, but he’s also the only person on the force who has ever managed to put away Edinburgh’s notorious crime boss, Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty.

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rebus is now working as a civilian employee of the department in a unit devoted to investigating cold cases. The work is unrewarding, and Rebus sees it only as a stepping-stone to getting back into active duty again. Then along comes a chance encounter with a woman who claims to see a pattern in the disappearance over the course of a decade of a number of young women along the A9 highway leading north from Edinburgh to the coast. As Rebus looks into her story, he begins to suspect that she’s right — and, for some reason Rebus finds mysterious, he’s the first person on the force to give her the time of day. To do justice to the investigation, Rebus manages to draw his former partner, Siobhan Clarke, now a Detective Inspector, into the case. Soon other detectives pile on in the increasingly fraught investigation as it moves forward, grabbing headlines throughout Britain.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is the 18th and most recently published of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. It’s also, I’ve learned, the third in a new series of books about Malcolm Fox.

This is my second venture into the work of Ian Rankin. Previously, I’d read only Doors Open, which I thoroughly disliked. (You can read my review by clicking on that title.) The dimensionality of the characters in this book compared with the overdrawn caricatures of Doors Open made it, for me, a much more satisfying read. For what it’s worth, Rankin is, reportedly, Britain’s best-selling author of crime novels.

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Nazis in Norway, a mysterious assassin, and an insubordinate detective


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A review of The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

For many years, Americans have been dipping into the seemingly bottomless store of crime novels from Scandinavia with noteworthy enthusiasm. Not so long ago, Stieg Larson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dominated the best-seller lists almost as surely as have Harry Potter and the various Shades of Gray. Earlier, many of us got hooked on Henning Mankell’s brilliant creation, Kurt Wallander — certainly, I did, having read all of those superb Swedish detective novels. Earlier still (1990s), the best-selling Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow captured wide attention, and in the 1960s and 70s there was the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Most recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about a Norwegian novelist, Jo Nesbo, and his anti-hero, detective Harry Hole. The Redbreast is my introduction to Jo Nesbo’s nine novels about his complex and often exasperating fictional detective. I have to say I’m impressed. Nesbo’s plotting is fiendishly complex, and his insight into character runs deep. As a writer, he (or perhaps his translator, Don Bartlett) matches up to any of the other Scandinavian crime writers, and he’s a damn sight better novelist than most of the Americans who write best-selling murder mysteries.

In The Redbreast, Harry Hole finds himself on the trail of a would-be assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity unknown to him, but so is the target. To begin with, all he knows is that someone has paid a fortune to acquire what is described as the assassin’s rifle of choice, and he’s determined to discover who bought it, and why. Meanwhile, having screwed up a major assignment and created an international incident in the process, Hole is ordered to investigate a neo-Nazi organization and sidetrack his work on the rifle. Naturally, he ignores the orders and doggedly pursues the trail of the overpriced murder weapon. His journey yields a new perspective on Norway during World War II, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany and many misguided young Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Third Reich. The historical references are both integral to the story and fascinating for an American whose experience of Nazism has come exclusively from books and film.

Previously, I reviewed the second and third books in Larson’s trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’ve also reviewed Mankell’s The Man from BeijingThe Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, and The Troubled Man, the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. (The titles are linked to my reviews.)

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Enough already! An open letter to Janet Evanovich


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A review of Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Dear Janet (if I may be so bold),

Maybe it’s me, but I doubt that. After you’ve written — what is it? 50? 51? — novels all told, I think you’re losing steam. Notorious Nineteen is, of course, the 19th in your Stephanie Plum series, and it shows. Here are a few of the most prominent signs:

  • Not one but two cars Stephanie is driving are blown up;
  • Lula consumes at least 8,000 calories of junk food in a single day;
  • Ranger rescues Stephanie from imminent death not once but twice;
  • A really bad guy gets blown up trying to kill Stephanie; and
  • Morelli and Stephanie still aren’t ready to get married after talking about it for 10 years.

Truth to tell, some of this is funny as it happens, which is why I kept reading this series of comic novels so long. But the humor is fast fading, and so is the guilty pleasure I’ve taken so long in this series.

I don’t know about you, Janet, but I’m ready to put Stephanie out to pasture at last. Appearances notwithstanding, she’s really pushing 60 now, right? Isn’t it time to lay off the staff on that assembly-line writing factory of yours and see what you can do on your own again?

Think about it. You may not be able to write anything original, but you won’t know unless you try, no?

Your erstwhile fan,

Mal Warwick

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The Rodney King riots, war crimes, and a small-town power elite

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A review of The Black Box, by Michael Connelly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Harry Bosch never dies — but he gets older as Michael Connelly’s superb series of Los Angeles police procedurals continues growing longer. In The Black Box, the 18th of the Harry Bosch novels and the 33rd of Connelly’s books, Bosch’s mind is undimmed but his body is showing signs of age as he digs deeply into a 20-year-old mystery that haunted him as a cop on the beat.

Now a seasoned detective in the LAPD’s Open Unsolved Unit, Harry jumps at the chance to take a crack at the unsolved murder of Anneke Jesperson, a Danish war correspondent who mysteriously died of a gunshot during the Rodney King riots in South Central L.A. Harry and his partner had been called to the scene of her murder 20 years earlier but because there were so many victims they were forced to move on to yet another murder scene as soon as they’d called the coroner. However, once Harry has begun to dig his teeth into the scant evidence available, his boss in the Open Unsolved Unit begins an intense effort to force him off the case. As in so many of Harry’s cases, police politics has intervened, and he finds himself forced to battle the LAPD all the while he pursues the growing signs of a conspiracy in Jesperson’s murder and the involvement of war crimes in the case.

In most of the Harry Bosch stories, events unfold exclusively within Los Angeles. However, the Jesperson case takes Harry far afield into California’s Central Valley, where he is forced to confront the grim presence of a small town’s power elite. There, the story takes a turn reminiscent of the late Ross McDonald’s 18 Lew Archer novels, which I devoured when much younger.

As always, Harry’s dogged persistence wins the day, and Connelly’s spare but smoothly flowing writing is fully satisfying. In previous posts, I’ve reviewed two of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, The Reversal here and The Drop here

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A roller-coaster ride through the depths of depravity in rural Kansas

A review of Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

She looks like a nice person, and I have no reason to believe that she isn’t. But she writes about some of the most twisted, miserable, good-for-nothing human beings imaginable.

Dark Places, the second of Gillian Flynn’s three novels to date and the second I’ve read (after her spectacular current best-seller, Gone Girl), takes a novel approach to unraveling the truth behind a 1985 mass murder in the American Heartland known as the Satanic Ritual Murders of Kinakee. Kinakee is a small, depressed farm town in Kansas, but we learn little about the town. The murders took place in the middle of the night on the small, failing farm of the Day family, where Patty Day and her four children — 15-year-old Ben, 10-year-old Michelle, and Debby and Libby, who are eight and seven respectively — have been living on the edge of starvation. Their father, Runner, has long since fled the farm, having driven it to the point of foreclosure with a series of extravagant and unnecessary equipment purchases.

Now, 24 years later, Ben is nearing 40, serving a life sentence for the murders of his mother and sisters. Libby, now 31, who survived the murders by hiding outside in the cold, has been living from the donations sent to support her and from the meager income from her book about the murders, but now the money is nearly gone. The story unfolds in chapters that alternate between Ben’s recollections of that day in January 1985, mixed with his mother’s alternate accounts, and Libby’s discoveries as the prospect of easy money that will help her avoid getting a job draws her more and more deeply into investigating the events of that day.

Flynn writes with a sure hand, and she does an outstanding job of building suspense in what seems an effortless manner. I found myself increasingly tense as the book neared its conclusion — suspecting I knew what had happened but doubting myself because it seemed so unlikely. Unfortunately, I was right, and that contrived ending is the book’s biggest flaw. But it’s a roller-coaster ride all the way to the end and well worthwhile for the thrill.

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John Sandford’s latest best-seller: Murder on the run in rural Minnesota

A review of Mad River, by John Sandford

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Virgil Flowers is not my kind of guy.

For starters, Virgil is a “pistol-packing, shit-kicking” type who drives a pickup and loves fishing, hunting, and arguing in bars about the best country singer of all time. The son of a conservative Lutheran pastor in rural Minnesota who still goes to church with his parents from time to time, he’s been divorced three times. He is also about six-one, blond, and thin, so if you know me you know I hate him. On the other hand, he’s an accomplished nonfiction writer who has been published in The New York Times Magazine and is now about to sign a contract for a major piece with Vanity Fair.

Oh, and by the way, Virgil is also an agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) who has piled up so impressive a record on high-profile cases that he has the governor on speed-dial – and he is the protagonist of a series of crime novels set in the upper Midwest by the pseudonymous John Sandford, who was an award-winning journalist in another life and under a different name.

In Mad River, Virgil has no sooner returned from a vacation in, of all places, the Bahamas when his boss, Lucas Davenport, assigns him to follow up on a brutal and seemingly senseless murder in a small rural town near Virgil’s home base in Mankato. One murder has turned into two by the time Virgil arrives in Bigham, the site of the first murder, and two more are discovered before Virgil and the disreputable local Sheriff can puzzle out what happened the first time around. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that a couple of local young people, or maybe three of them, have gone on a killing spree. Mad River tells the unfolding tale of Virgil’s, and the Sheriff’s, rush to get to the killers first—Virgil, to take them in for prosecution, the Sheriff, to kill them on the spot.

This latest best-selling work from John Sandford – number six in the Virgil Flowers series – bears all the characteristics of the author’s trademark mastery of suspense. The story unfolds unpredictably, and, for a change, even ends in surprise. Nonetheless, I think Sandford (or his editor) may have been asleep at the wheel on this one. With only a few exceptions, every character in this novel, major or minor, is described as “thin” – not “skinny,” “slender,” “rail-thin,” “emaciated,” “skeletal,” “reedy,” or “light-weight,” but simply “thin.” To my mind, this seems an abuse of the writer’s spare, colloquial style, and as an editor by nature I find it offensive. Anyway, do Minnesotans really eat that little?

All told, Sandford has written 34 novels, including 22 in his “Prey” series, in which Lucas Davenport of the BCA is the central character and Virgil Flowers is usually in the supporting cast. In this blog I’ve previously reviewed Phantom Prey, Storm Prey, and Stolen Prey in the Davenport series and Shock Wave featuring Flowers.

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John Grisham’s “The Racketeer” — a walk on the dark side, for a change

A review of The Racketeer, by John Grisham

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When you’re reading somebody’s 25th novel — the 31st of all the books he’s written — you’d be right to expect that he’d gotten the hang of writing. Especially if the guy had already sold more than a quarter of a billion copies of his work. And so it is with John Grisham’s fiendishly clever new novel, The Racketeer. It’s another winner from a man who’s been turning them out for more than two decades.

One aspect of Grisham’s fiendishness is his capacity to surprise, not just with twists and turns of plot — he’s great at that — but also by switching gears emotionally. For example, his most recent crime story before The Racketeer was The Litigators. That was a very funny book. The Racketeer isn’t (unless you have a tendency to cackle whenever a crook outsmarts the FBI). Grisham’s spare, no-nonsense style varies little, but he has a rare gift to make the most improbable characters both credible and likable. But no matter how sly and underhanded, his   leading characters are almost always guys (or gals) in white hats.

Malcolm Bannister is Grisham’s protagonist here. Bannister is a hapless small-town attorney in Virginia who seems to have lost his white hat. He’s about halfway through an unjustified ten-year sentence in the Federal pen for violating the RICO act — yet another brilliant example of the FBI’s manipulation of that misbegotten law. He is 43, a former Marine, African-American, and wicked smart. Oh, and has he got a yen to get even with the FBI!

Suffice it to say that, at the outset, this book’s title is ironic. By the end it’s anything but ironic. And all the fun lies in how Bannister gets there. If you can guess how he does it before the plot fully unfolds, you’re a better person than me.

By the way, another of Grisham’s tendencies is to show off his liberal, reformist side, and The Racketeer is no different in that respect. Here, he takes on the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prepare to be horrified.

I’ve previously reviewed The Litigators and The Confession

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Surprises galore in this beautifully crafted novel of crime and punishment in Atlanta

A review of Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.

The action in Criminal shifts repeatedly from the present day to 1975 and back again, and the connections between the events in those two years become clear only well into the book. Amanda is a central figure in both strands of the story – beginning her career in the Atlanta Police Department in 1975 and nearing retirement amid the latter-day events. Will Trent takes center stage on the contemporary scene, his new romance with Dr. Sara Linton blossoming and then sorely tested as the action unfolds.

The novel opens in 1975 with the disappearance of Lucy Bennett, a rich girl gone bad, hooked on heroin and working the streets under the thumb of a pimp who goes by the name of Juice. Only in the final pages of the novel do we come to understand fully what happened to Lucy, and why.

Slaughter writes from an omniscient perspective, shifting the viewpoint from time to time as one character or another moves on-stage. Her prose is spare and pulls no punches. Although her characters harbor secrets that will only later be revealed, there is nothing manipulative about the author’s failure to disclose what they know any more quickly than they themselves would be likely to do so.

Slaughter’s research into the Atlanta Police Department of the mid-1970s was extensive, and what she reveals about its egregiously bad behavior in that era is deeply troubling. Amanda Wagner’s experience as a rookie officer, and that of her female friends, is shocking – though perhaps no more so than what female officers experienced at the time in other law enforcement departments where their presence was a novelty. Slaughter’s sensitive treatment of race relations during that era is no less revealing.

To date, Karin Slaughter has written a total of 12 novels featuring Will Trent and Sara Linton. I previously reviewed Broken and Blindsightedboth of which are set in the small Georgia town where Dr. Linton previously ran a children’s health clinic and served part-time as medical examiner. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Slaughter’s novels.

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